England's familiar spot of bother
England 0 Italy 0 (Italy 4-2 on penalties):IT WAS 12.24am, local time, when Alessandro Diamanti walked forward for the final, decisive kick and, when it was all done, Italy had a semi-final booked against Germany while England were plunged into the familiar sense of deja vu that comes with another harrowing disappointment in a penalty shoot-out.
A few moments earlier, Ashley Cole’s effort had been saved by Gianluigi Buffon. Riccardo Montolivo had put Italy’s second effort wide and Ashley Young had struck the crossbar and when it was all over, it was Cesare Prandelli’s players in a victory scrum and Roy Hodgson’s ones who could be seen on their knees, or lying flat out, in raw despair.
England had played with great vigour. There were times when Italy took better care of the ball and moments, too, when Hodgson’s team suddenly looked vulnerable.
Yet that was probably inevitable when the opposition is this refined and the match considerably more orientated towards attacking than many had anticipated.
If the common expectation was that this would be a tactical encounter with few chances and only sporadic excitement, it quickly became apparent that this was not going to be the case.
There were players in the England team who had not even touched the ball by the time Daniele De Rossi, from fully 30 yards, lashed a shot against Joe Hart’s right-hand post.
Then England, in their first genuine attack, cut open the opposition defence and Glen Johnson suddenly had the ball at his feet, inside the six-yard area, only to strike his shot meekly into the arms of Buffon.
At least England were showing the ability to penetrate the opposition defence, with Johnson’s surges forward an early feature.
At one point the right back slipped the ball through Federico Balzaretti’s legs and spun past De Rossi in quick succession. A wonderfully clipped cross shortly afterwards left Wayne Rooney shaping himself for a diving header only for Ignazio Abate to make a late intervention.
England were counter-attacking with pace and intent but Italy were more comfortable in possession, finishing the first half strongly and demonstrating some lovely touches, like the drag-back from Montolivo to elude Cole and, inevitably, the full range of Andrea Pirlo’s long and short passing.
The worry for England in this period was the frequency with which a ball through the middle split them open. Twice in quick succession Mario Balotelli had the chance to open the scoring from such moves.
On the first occasion his first touch was not quite accomplished enough and John Terry, having played him onside, came across to block the shot.
Balotelli’s second attempt was a difficult volley, saved by Hart, but these were increasingly anxious moments for England and they were fortunate at this stage that the Manchester City striker was so generous with his finishing.
Another chance, from Antonio Cassano’s header across the six-yard area, was turned over the crossbar and left Balotelli so enraged he took an angry swipe at the post. Soon afterwards, another shot flashed just wide and Balotelli could be seen, again, screaming to the skies.
With better finishing, Italy will reflect this could have been a far more comfortable evening. Three minutes into the second half Hart punched out a corner and, when Claudio Marchisio headed the ball back into the penalty area, Joleon Lescott hesitated and De Rossi had the goal at his mercy. He rushed his shot, turned it wide and England had another let-off.
They were playing a dangerous game and frequently indebted to Italy’s erratic finishing, such as when Balotelli aimed straight at Hart, after the goalkeeper had parried a 52nd-minute effort from De Rossi into his path.
Montilivo hooked the rebound over the crossbar and, not long afterwards, Balotelli’s brilliantly improvised overhead kick also narrowly missed the target.
England were tired, leggy and suffering. Steven Gerrard’s first bout of cramp came after 71 minutes and, after Rooney could not convert his stoppage-time chance to win it, Scott Parker and Young also needed lengthy treatment.
It was no surprise Parker had to go off in the first period of extra time. By that stage Italy were starting to look weary, too, but their superiority was still obvious and they could also reflect on that moment when the substitute Diamanti’s curling left-foot effort ricocheted off the post.
Italy had accumulated 35 shots, compared to England’s nine, and 64 per cent of the possession. Nobody could say the better side did not win.